December 29 2013 10:19AM
The Vancouver Canucks return to action on Sunday evening after a week long Christmas break. The first game back after Christmas is often a tryptophan induced slog, and after a full week spent idle, presumably it'll take a bit for the Canucks to find their pre-Christmas form. Luckily they'll get a soft landing on Sunday evening, as they face the relatively hapless Calgary Flames in the first leg of back-to-back games.
Read past the jump for a more lengthy game preview.
Puck drop: 4:30 PM PST
TV: Sportsnet Pacific
The Vancouver Canucks have been on fire in December, posting a 9-1-1 record that still hasn't been good enough to bump them into the top-three in the murderers row Pacific Division. What the Canucks have done this past month, racking up wins despite injuries to key players like Alex Burrows, Alex Edler, has been very impressive. Of course we'd be remiss if we didn't note that really what the Canucks have managed to do is take advantage of a relatively soft portion of their schedule. With games against the Tampa Bay Lightning (who are really good), the Pittsburgh Penguins, the St. Louis Blues, the Chicago Blackhawks and a couple of games against the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes on the docket for January; the club's next few weeks are going to be much more difficult.
For the upcoming week or so the team will need to tread water in the absence of usual starter Roberto Luongo. After a slow first couple of months to the season, Luongo returned to form in a big way in the month of December before sustaining a groin injury against the Winnipeg Jets on December 22nd. The evidence is mounting that Eddie Lack is a capable short-term replacement, but the team will absolutely miss Luongo's puck-stopping ability as he convalesces.
The month of December has been a pretty interesting one for the Canucks, as they've managed to reel off a series of victories despite a relative lack of contributions from the Sedin twins at even-strength. Ryan Kesler (who has played mostly with Mike Santorelli and Chris Higgins) has been on absolute fire, as that group is controlling more than 55% of shot attempts in score tied situations. They've outscored opponents by five or so goals in score close situations over the past month, and haven't relied unduly on percentages to achieve that.
The third line of Brad Richardson, David Booth and Zack Kassian has been similarly productive, and has managed to outscore opponents in score tied situations. The rejuvenated third-line has received a fair bit of pub, but I'm not buying yet, as lots of their recent success appears to me to be smoke and mirrors. For example, the team has controlled only 37% of shot attempts with Richardson on the ice in score cose situations in December, and granted Richardson is used in a defensive oriented manner, but that's pretty ugly.
Meanwhile the twins have not produced much at evens, but they've also allowed nothing against (at least with the score tied). Henrik's on-ice shooting percentage at even-strength in score tied situations in December sits below 4%, which won't continue, but their underlying numbers haven't really been that strong either (in comparison with their usual lofty standard). The Canucks will need the twins to bust out of their funk if the team hopes to continue winning when their goaltending comes back to Earth.
And really that otherwordly goaltending has been the story of the month, let's not kid ourselves. Yes the Chris Tanev and Dan Hamhuis pairing have been stellar, and yes the Kesler line has been dominant (in an oddly sustainable way), but goaltending has carried the Canucks this month. Lack and Luongo have combined for a totally ridiculous .981 save percentage with the score tied at even-strength in December. That's some "Colorado Avalanche in October" schtick and, yeah, won't continue...
Here are Vancouver's relevant underlying numbers for the year:
|Corsi Close%||52.2% (8th)|
|5v5 GF/60||2.40 (8th)|
|5v5 GA/60||2.08 (9th)|
|5v4 GF/60||4.67 (26th)|
|5v4 SF/60||63.2 (2nd)|
|4v5 GA/60||3.39 (1st)|
|4v5 SA/60||41.3 (2nd)|
One change to the Calgary Flames lineup pictured above: the club has recalled Mikael's brother Markus Granlund from the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League on Sunday. Granlund will be in the lineup against Vancouver with presumably in place of former Vancouver Giants forward Lance Bouma.
The Flames are not a good team, obviously, but to their credit they compete hard game in and game out despite an undermanned roster. Mike Cammalleri is a can-opener who possesses the ability to cut through defensive formations and produce offense, Mikael Backlund is a pretty good play driving centre, and Matt Stajan is having a whale of a season handling tough defensive assignments. Basically Calgary has three quality third-lines and three decent top-four defenseman, which isn't a winning recipe over a full hockey season, but makes them dangerous on any given night. Vancouver will need to be sharp, or, at least not totally flat on Sunday.
One other thing to note about the Flames: they're bad at everything except the penalty-kill, which they're pretty decent at. They're also really aggressive and look to score shorthanded. The Canucks will need to be cognizant of that...
Here's Calgary's underlying numbers:
|Corsi Close %||43.5% (28th)|
|5v5 GF/60||1.98 (22nd)|
|5v5 GA/60||2.68 (29th)|
|5v4 GF/60||5.37 (19th)|
|5v4 SF/60||45.8 (27th)|
|4v5 GA/60||6.05 (13th)|
|4v5 SA/60||49 (10th)|
Eddie Lack seems like a very, very confident guy. Here's what he had to say about the opportunity to be Vancouver's uncontested starter for a week or so:
“I've always thought I was capable of playing in this league and I've worked hard for a long time to get here.
Roberto is our No. 1 but now that he's out, it's time for me to step up. I'm just trying to take it day-by-day and not think too much about where I've been. I've only been thinking about what I can do to get better.”